What Have We Learned From Week 8 of the 2015 NFL Season

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Peyton Manning

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) talks to his teammates during the first half of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Here is What Have We Learned from Week 8 of the 2015 NFL Season, thanks to the AP Pro 32 for photos & help in this article.

Ups

  • Broncos showing the NFL the way at 7-0: Even the long-awaited emergence of Peyton Manning and an annihilation of Aaron Rodgers might not be enough to keep the haters from continuing to doubt the Denver Broncos.They’re fine with that.

    “We’re just trying to go out there and be a championship team, that’s it,” said Derek Wolfe, who earned Denver’s defensive player of the game honors for his role in the Broncos’ 29-10 shellacking of the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night.

    “Anyone that gets in our way, we’re going to run through them.”

    Packers coach Mike McCarthy can attest to that, noting after the game that he hadn’t been on the wrong end of such a butt-whooping in a very long time.

    Neither had Rodgers, who was held to a career-low 77 yards passing.

    The Broncos (7-0) entered the game as a field goal underdog, derided as an imperfect lucky-charm, the “worst” of the league’s remaining unbeaten teams.

    “Being the underdog at home made us mad. Thank you, Vegas,” declared cornerback Chris Harris Jr., whose coverage skills helped turn the prime-time matchup into a mismatch.

    Von Miller said he liked coming in as an undefeated underdog at Sports Authority Field, where Manning is now 25-2 in the regular season in orange and navy.

    “I like the monkey on the back,” Miller said. “It put us in this kind of mode that we’re in now. So, the monkey is good.”

    In improving to 7-0 for the first time since their 1998 championship season, the Broncos outgained the Packers 500 yards to 140.

    “Oh definitely, definitely a statement game,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “We just wanted to come out and show the whole world that we’re not a team that just gets by every week.”

    Until Sunday night, that’s exactly what they were, winning their first six games by a total of just 37 points, the lowest point differential for a 6-0 team in more than 80 years.

    Harris wonders what more Denver’s destructive defense has to do to win over the critics, but said, “We just thank them for the motivation. Everybody that’s saying we’re not the real ‘no fly zone’ or anything like that, that motivates us. Ray Lewis saying we’re not great, that motivated us.”

    On Monday, Denver’s 68-year-old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had a little fun with the blowout when he tweeted, “Chicken Parm tastes so good — I like it especially with Cheese,” in a nod to his team’s quarterback and a jab at Green Bay’s.

    The Broncos’ offense finally joined in all the fun, capitalizing on health along an O-line line after veteran guards Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez practiced all week for the first time in a month.

    The result was a ground game that produced a season-high 160 yards and three touchdowns and a tight end corps that racked up 105 yards to go with Demaryius Thomas’ season-best 168 yards.

    “I love that,” Harris said. “To be able to get us some rest, we got great rest. The offense moved the ball great. Peyton looked like Peyton Manning. Even the receivers, they did great. As long as they can continue to play like that, it’s going to be tough to beat us.”

    After struggling to find a rhythm for six weeks, Denver’s offense became the first in the NFL since 2012 to have 16 plays of 15 or more yards.

    Manning has been picked off in his first seven games for the first time ever but he’s 7-0 for the fifth time in his career. He said the rough transition isn’t a surprise to him and there’s still a long way to go. But this was a good sign of what it can look like, and combined with Denver’s dominant defense it provided a peek into what the Broncos can become.

    And now Manning has two-time Pro Bowler Vernon Davis after GM John Elway acquired the tight end Monday in a trade with the San Francisco 49ers. The Broncos have been searching for a top tight end since losing rookie Jeff Heuerman to a torn ACL shortly after he was selected in the third round of the draft out of Ohio State.

    “When we lost him, I think there was a bit of a void there that we were trying to fill,” Elway said. “I think we have that filled now.”

  • Seahawks looking good going into Bye Week– While their concern remained with teammate Ricardo Lockette undergoing neck surgery, the Seattle Seahawks scattered for their bye week on Monday understanding the importance of getting back to .500 at the midpoint of the season.That might not be considered much of an accomplishment after beating Dallas 13-12 that evened Seattle’s record at 4-4. Even coach Pete Carroll made a crack about it on Monday saying it was “nothing to be shouting about.”

    But getting to that mark before taking a needed break leaves many of Seattle’s goals from before the season in its own control heading into the final eight games. That includes remaining the dominant team in the NFC West as Seattle has two games remaining against division-leading Arizona and one game with second-place St. Louis.

    “We have a second-half to really go for it. We have all of the matchups and the games we need to play in the division to settle issues and to go for it and take it as far as we can,” Carroll said. “We’ve put back-to-back weeks winning on the road which is enormous and we’re grateful for those wins and doing things in a fashion that we’re different than we were earlier in the year. We’re finishing games well on both sides of the ball and starting to play in the style that we’re accustomed to.”

    Seattle’s escape from Dallas was thanks to a defense that for a second straight week didn’t allow a touchdown and was suffocating in the fourth quarter. After defensive breakdowns in the fourth quarter were partly to blame for earlier losses against St. Louis, Cincinnati and Carolina, the Seahawks allowed just 4 yards of offense in the fourth quarter to Dallas.

    That comes after allowing just 3 total yards of offense in the fourth quarter to San Francisco a week earlier. And while those performances came against less than dominant offenses, it was just the ninth and 10th times since 1991 the Seahawks have given up less than 10 yards of offense in the fourth quarter, according to STATS.

    “I think just in general our third down numbers are going in the right direction. I think that’s a big factor. We always come back to third downs, especially when we talk about finishing games on both sides of the football,” Carroll said. “The fact we’ve really knocked numbers down in the past two weeks really makes a difference.”

    The improved fourth-quarter defense was tested twice against the Cowboys. The first came after Dallas blocked Steven Hauschka’s 47-yard field-goal attempt midway through the fourth quarter that would have given Seattle the lead. The Seahawks responded by forcing a quick three-and-out that took barely two minutes off the clock.

    That allowed plenty of time for Russell Wilson to direct a 17-play drive that was capped by Hauschka’s 24-yard field goal with 1:06 remaining. And this time Seattle made that lead stand after giving up scores in the final minute of regulation in those losses to the Rams, Bengals and Panthers.

    “It just feels good to finally finish,” Seattle’s Bruce Irvin said after the win. “The past couple weeks our defense has done a great job of finishing no matter what the offense did. We just focused on ourselves and only worried about what we could control.”

    NOTES: Carroll said the ankle injury suffered by Luke Willson is the only one that could linger after the week off. Everyone else that was injured in the game should return to practice, Carroll said. … CB Jeremy Lane, who suffered arm and knee injuries in the Super Bowl and has been on the PUP list all season, should be able to return to practice next week.

  • Raiders & Playoffs, Maybe???– Charles Woodson was sick of hearing the talk about how the Oakland Raiders were finally competitive again after years of being overmatched.Woodson has his eyes set on a much higher target: the playoffs.

    What might have seemed farfetched when Oakland lost a lopsided opener to Cincinnati in September is now a distinct possibility after the Raiders put together their second straight complete performance, beating the New York Jets 34-20 on Sunday.

    “It’s fine for some people to play from the underdog role, but I don’t like it,” Woodson said. “I don’t like being the underdog. I want to be expected to win games. I want these guys to go out there and be expected to win games. Yeah, it’s a little premature to be thinking that far ahead, playoff-wise, but there’s no reason you can’t think of yourself as a playoff team.”

    Woodson is a big reason why. The 39-year-old is showing no signs of slowing down. His league-leading fifth interception helped the Raiders (4-3) beat the Jets (4-3) to become one of five AFC teams with winning records.

    Oakland plays another playoff contender this week when the Raiders travel to Pittsburgh (4-4). A win would keep Oakland atop the AFC wild-card race with wins over two of the closest competitors in the Steelers and Jets.

    What a difference a year makes.

    At this point last year, the Raiders were 0-8 and on their way to 10 straight losses to open the season and 16 in a row overall. But with a new mindset instilled by Jack Del Rio’s coaching staff, a potent offense led by emerging star Derek Carr and an improved defense anchored by Woodson and Khalil Mack, the Raiders are in their best position since going to the Super Bowl in 2002

    Now instead of the questions last year about whether the Raiders would even win a game, the focus is on whether Oakland needs to guard against overconfidence.

    “I don’t really understand this question of guarding against. We’re a 4-3 team,” Del Rio said. “We’ve battled each and every week. We’re going to continue to battle each and every week. These kind of questions are kind of silly to me.”

    While Oakland reached a 5-4 mark in 2010 before finishing 8-8 and made it to 7-4 the following year before a late-season collapse left them at .500 again and out of the playoffs, the success this season appears to be more lasting.

    With Carr playing better than any quarterback for the Raiders since Rich Gannon was winning the MVP in 2002, Oakland has a core to build around with fellow youngsters like Mack, Amari Cooper, Latavius Murray, TJ Carrie, Gabe Jackson and Mario Edwards Jr.

    But they also know there is plenty of work to be done to achieve their goal of a playoff berth.

    “We can’t come out next week and not do the same thing,” left tackle Donald Penn said. “We’ve got to keep this thing going, and that’s the thing I’m trying to express to the team. Let’s keep building.”

    NOTES: The Raiders came out of the game with no injuries to report. … The only player on the active roster currently sidelined is LB Neiron Ball, who is expected to miss a few more weeks with a knee injury.

Downs

  • The Lions & their questions at 1-7?: The Detroit Lions tried firing a few assistant coaches before their trip to London.When they took the field for their next game, the result was the same. Or maybe worse.

    After their latest embarrassing defeat, it’s looking more and more like the Lions may be facing another lengthy rebuilding period. With a new offensive coordinator and a reshuffled coaching staff, Detroit lost 45-10 to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. In an overseas matchup against another team that’s been struggling, the Lions were routed.

    “It’s not one of those situations where you can fix everything overnight,” coach Jim Caldwell said, trying to explain another dismal offensive performance in which Detroit had a hard time protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford.

    About all the Lions (1-7) can hope for now is that an open date on the schedule will help. Last week’s shakeup, in which offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was fired along with two offensive line coaches, came as something of a surprise; moves like that seemed more likely to take place after the London trip than before it. At least now, new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter will have more time to make adjustments before the Lions play at Green Bay on Nov. 15.

    That game will underscore just how far the Lions have fallen. In last year’s regular-season finale, Detroit played at Green Bay with the division title on the line. The Lions lost that day and have won only one game since.

    Questions about job security — of Caldwell, general manager Martin Mayhew and others — are bound to continue unless the team pulls off a major turnaround.

    “I know everybody. I know the work ethic of the guys in there,” Stafford said. “They’re putting all sorts of hard work and dedication into it, and it’s frustrating for everybody when it doesn’t come out the right way.”

    The Lions were not available to the media Monday. They’re scheduled to practice Tuesday morning. Right now the franchise’s long-term direction is in question. The 27-year-old Stafford is in his seventh season, and star receiver Calvin Johnson is 30. Those two once formed perhaps the game’s most dynamic quarterback-receiver tandem, but lately they’ve been unable to lift the Detroit offense out of its funk.

    Stafford was intercepted twice and sacked six times against the Chiefs.

    “I thought Jim Bob called a good game, we just didn’t execute,” Stafford said. “We had miscommunications in certain areas. We had guys doing stuff, including myself, that aren’t going to help us win. I’ve got to play better and so does our team.”

    The Lions made the playoffs last season, but their fans are well aware how quickly a team can decline. In 2007, Detroit started 6-2 before losing seven of its final eight games. The following season, the Lions went an historic 0-16.

    Stafford was drafted after that winless season, and by 2011, the Lions were a playoff team. But their progress stagnated after that, and now this is a franchise facing a murky future.

    The three players who led the Lions back to respectability were Stafford, Johnson and Ndamukong Suh. Detroit lost Suh to free agency, and with Stafford and Johnson producing less and less, it’s not clear who the Lions can build around in the coming years.

    Third-year defensive end Ziggy Ansah has looked terrific at times, but other high draft picks haven’t made much of a splash. Now it looks like Detroit may be picking near the top of the draft again next spring.

    Amid all the questions about the future, the Lions have eight more games to play, but it’s hard to see what they can still accomplish that can salvage this season.

  • Titans fire Ken Whisenhunt, name Mike Mularkey interim coach– Management has two primary goals for the Tennessee Titans: win games and protect franchise rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota. Ken Whisenhunt didn’t do a good enough job in either category, so he was let go.Now Mike Mularkey gets his chance in a nine-game audition for the job.

    The Titans became the second NFL team to fire a coach this season, relieving Whisenhunt of his duties Tuesday morning after he went 3-20 in his tenure with the franchise. They turned the team over to Mularkey on an interim basis.

    A former head coach with Buffalo and Jacksonville, Mularkey was a finalist in Tennessee in 2011 before Mike Munchak was hired.

    President Steve Underwood said controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk wants the Titans to do everything possible to protect Mariota — including keeping him out of games if necessary to heal. This franchise hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2008, and Mariota now is the third quarterback they’ve drafted within the first eight picks in the last decade.

    “I don’t care how good the rest of your team is if you don’t have the right kind of quarterback it’s hard to succeed long-term,” Underwood said. “We now have another rookie quarterback who’s very promising, and I think our future is bright. … So much in our league begins and ends with the quarterback.”

    Whisenhunt helped draft Mariota at No. 2 overall last spring, but Underwood said Strunk had been thinking of making a coaching change for weeks. Underwood and general manager Ruston Webster told Whisenhunt he was fired.

    “When you’re not winning and you can’t win, that’s when change happens in the NFL,” Underwood said.

    Whisenhunt’s latest loss came Sunday in Houston, where this franchise was founded and with Strunk in the stadium. That apparently was the last straw for Strunk, who was not at Tuesday’s press conference. She took over as controlling owner in March, replacing Tommy Smith who gave Whisenhunt a five-year contract in January 2014.

    “We have expected more progress on the field, and I felt it was time to move in a different direction,” Strunk said in a statement.

    Titans cornerback Perrish Cox, who missed the last two games with an injured hamstring, said on Twitter that the move was frustrating.

    “For anyone who wants to kno, no i am NOT happy with wiz gone, he was a good coach, he wznt the prob and we all know it!!,” Cox wrote.

    The Titans (1-6) gave up seven sacks to the struggling Texans, leaving J.J. Watt surprised at not being double-teamed more. Mularkey said he talked with Mariota and told him they’ll do some things differently to keep him “upright.”

    “Obviously, based on what’s happened the past couple weeks with the protections, that’s imperative,” Mularkey said.

    Tennessee has allowed 28 sacks, including seven in a game twice.

    Underwood said Mularkey was chosen over Dick LeBeau, another former NFL head coach, as the interim coach based on his experience as an offensive coordinator. LeBeau is in charge of a defense currently fifth in the NFL in yards allowed.

    Mularkey was hired as tight ends coach by Whisenhunt and promoted to assistant head coach in charge of the run game this offseason. Mularkey is 16-32 overall as a head coach. A nine-year player in the NFL with Minnesota and Pittsburgh, Mularkey also has been an offensive coordinator with Pittsburgh, Miami and Atlanta.

    The Falcons had a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard receiver and 1,000-yard rusher in three of Mularkey’s four seasons between 2008 and 2011.

    The Titans have started four rookies on offense this season, including Mariota who missed the last two games with a sprained MCL in his left knee. Tennessee currently ranks next to last in the NFL, averaging 17.9 points per game, and in total yards per game. Mularkey said offensive coordinator Jason Michael will call plays, a job Whisenhunt previously handled.

    “We dug a hole that we have to climb out of,” Mularkey said.

  • Kaepernick benched, Gabbert to start Sunday– Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been told he won’t start Sunday for the San Francisco 49ers and is being replaced by backup Blaine Gabbert, a person with knowledge of the decision said Monday night.The person spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because the decision wasn’t to be discussed publicly. The team had not made a formal announcement, though coach Jim Tomsula offered a pretty good hint earlier in the day “we’re evaluating everyone,” on the heels of a 27-6 loss at St. Louis and a second straight game without a touchdown and third in five.

    Kaepernick has been benched for his birthday, as he turns 28 on Tuesday. In a strange twist, it was three years ago in November 2012 when Kaepernick was promoted to replace Alex Smith and he wound up leading San Francisco back to the Super Bowl and a three-point loss to Baltimore. Kaepernick made his first career start on Nov. 19, 2012, for former coach Jim Harbaugh.

    Former first-round pick Gabbert completed 23 of 28 passes in the preseason — for an 82.1 completion percentage — for 203 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions and a 108.8 passer rating. He has stood by locker mate and friend Kaepernick, and they have regularly eaten lunch together, especially last week when a report said Kaepernick was alone “on an island” in the locker room.

    “This whole team sees Kap on an everyday basis, we see him 15 hours a day in meetings,” Gabbert said. “Unless those stories are coming from in here they’re false.”

    Bay Area Sports Guy first reported the change. The quarterback speaks each Wednesday, also the next scheduled availability for Tomsula.

    Tomsula had always said Kaepernick was his quarterback and made that commitment almost weekly during San Francisco’s struggles this season — until Monday.

    The 49ers coach said every player is being evaluated and he didn’t name his starting quarterback for a home game Sunday against Atlanta.

    “We’re evaluating everything right now, we’re in the middle of it right now. I don’t have any comments on any position on our field right now,” Tomsula said. “We’re evaluating everyone. I’m not going to have any further comment, I’m just telling you we’re evaluating everyone.”

    Later Monday, the 49ers traded tight end Vernon Davis to the Denver Broncos for a pair of late-round draft picks.

    Kaepernick is taking a seat at least this week for a franchise searching for any possible spark after another dismal day on offense. The Niners are 0-3 in the NFC West. They have their bye week next week.

    “It needs a jolt, and needs it from every position,” fullback Bruce Miller said. “I know that we can play better at all 11 spots and until we do that and play together as a group, I think it’s fair to say that every position is under review because we’ve got to play together as a group, not as individuals.”

    Kaepernick has passed for just 286 yards the last two games for the Niners (2-6), raising questions for weeks now whether a big change was needed. Perhaps more than just the quarterback, too.

    Tomsula wouldn’t say when a decision would be announced, only that, “We’ll make those decisions when we’ve got those things done at every position, every position … Colin didn’t play good enough, neither did the team, the San Francisco 49ers didn’t play good enough.”

    Gabbert was impressive in the preseason for San Francisco. Jacksonville selected him 10th overall in the 2011 draft.

    “I know where we’re going with this questioning. I’m not going down that road,” Tomsula said. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Blaine Gabbert.”

    The defense has appreciated what Gabbert brings every week on the scout team to prepare the Niners for the upcoming opponent’s quarterback.

    “That’s coach’s decision. Every position is under evaluation each and every week. That motivates every guy at every position to go out and work a little bit harder … and can be held accountable,” defensive lineman Quinton Dial said, then noted of Gabbert: “He definitely goes about his business as a professional. He shows up, works hard each and every day and gives us a great look on the scout team.”

    Tomsula said he is comfortable with his coordinators — Geep Chryst on offense and Eric Mangini on defense — going forward. The coach also noted he is meeting weekly with CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke.

    “I’m not at a self-doubt place now,” Tomsula when asked about his own frame of mind.

  • Colts fire offensive coordinator after 3 straight losses– A confounding start prompted Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano to fire his offensive coordinator on Tuesday.Less than 24 hours after a third consecutive loss, Pagano announced he had replaced Pep Hamilton with associate head coach Rob Chudzinski.

    “As head coach of this team, it’s my responsibility to make sure I’m doing everything we can to put us in the best position to succeed,” Pagano said in a statement. “We thank Pep for his service to the team and wish him all the best.”

    Clearly, the Colts (3-5) have not lived up to the Super Bowl hype they started with this season.

    They lost their first two games for the second time in Pagano’s tenure and are in the midst of the first three-game losing streak since Pagano and Andrew Luck arrived in town in 2012. Outside the terrible AFC South, Indianapolis is 0-5, and Luck has thrown a league-high 12 interceptions despite missing the first two games of his career because of a right shoulder injury.

    Not surprisingly, Pagano and Hamilton had faced a steady stream of criticism for mistakes and questionable play-calling. Hamilton mostly blamed himself.

    “It’s a combination of helping the protection and then I just have to do a better job of coming up with ways to get our guys matched up and getting them matched up against the linebackers, safeties, whoever, getting them more involved in the passing game,” Hamilton said Thursday when he was asked why the tight ends weren’t more involved.

    While the move was not entirely unexpected, the timing was a surprise.

    Indy (3-5) lost 29-26 to unbeaten Carolina in overtime on Monday night, and now has a short week to prepare for Peyton Manning and the unbeaten Denver Broncos. Most people around town thought the schedule might force the Colts to wait till next week, their bye week, to make a change.

    But Pagano decided to make a change right now, putting Chudzinski, the former Cleveland Browns coach, in charge of play-calling.

    Chudzinski was not available Tuesday. A scheduled conference call with Pagano was cancelled after about 90 seconds because of technical difficulties.

    “Through the first eight weeks of the season, we have felt our offense hasn’t performed at the consistent level that we need,” Pagano said.

    It’s not just play-calling.

    Luck hasn’t looked right all season. Fox Sports reported Sunday that Luck had been playing with multiple fractured ribs in addition to the shoulder injury the Colts had put on the injury report. That mirrored the initial fear that Luck had injured his ribs Sept. 27 at Tennessee.

    The league is now investigating whether the Colts violated the injury-reporting rules by trying to hide Luck’s true condition.

    What’s next for the Colts’ coaching staff isn’t clear, either. Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson have downplayed the notion that they are at odds.

    It has been a rough season so far, but Indianapolis is still tied with Houston for the division lead.

    Luck’s alarming turnover rate has forced Indy’s defense into horrible field position, the offense has been unable to consistently move the ball and big early deficits have continually forced the Colts to become one-dimensional.

    But Pagano isn’t pointing fingers at his star quarterback.

    “Andrew is as tough a competitor as I have ever been around. He is going through a stretch right now, we are all going through a stretch right now,” Pagano said Monday night. “I am not worried about Andrew Luck. Together we will get this thing fixed.”

    Before spending the past 2 1/2 seasons with Luck in Indy, Hamilton spent two of his three seasons as a Stanford assistant working with Luck.

    Chudzinski spent the first 10 seasons of his coaching career at Miami, the last three as offensive coordinator. He served as the Browns tight ends coach and interim coordinator in 2004. After two seasons as tight ends coach in San Diego, he returned to Cleveland as offensive coordinator. Two seasons later, he returned to San Diego for two more seasons as assistant head coach in charge of tight ends.

    He left in 2011 for Carolina, where he spent two more seasons as offensive coordinator before taking the Browns’ head coaching job. After he was fired following the 2013 season, Chudzinski was hired by Pagano as his special assistant.

 

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